1. In the Beginning
The grounds of Renwick Castle, Iversley, Angland, 1556 AD
“My lady? My lady, where are you?”
The maidservant’s call echoed through the thicket edging the castle grounds, but Anne just pressed herself deeper into the greenery, sucking in her breath as though that would change the bell shape of her skirts, or make her unusual colouring somehow blend in better with the trees. She had no patience for Maura’s ministrations, no matter how kindly meant. It had been that kind of morning.
“My lady!” The woman was starting to sound a bit frantic, and Anne pushed back a pang of guilt. Just because she was miserable didn’t mean that she should share that misery with others. After all, ’twas only a marriage, and she a grown woman of sixteen. A widow, even (the Eternal One rest poor Wilbert’s soul) and she should be meek and obedient and accept the Queen’s will that she marry yet another stranger, and not take it out on the servant who’d she’d known since childhood-
“Wicked, red-headed wretch,” Maura muttered as she stomped by, fists curled and shoulders hunched with irritation. “Going to the garderobe indeed! ’Twas naught but an excuse for mischief, and when I get my hands on you, Anne of Covington, you’ll be sorry you ever ran from me…”
But Anne was not at all sorry, and didn’t intend to be found until she was good and ready. More so now she’d heard the woman’s last words, which weren’t at all as respectful as they ought to be. Maura had served Anne’s own mother since childhood and then followed Anne to Renwick Castle upon her (ill-fated) marriage two years earlier, but usually guarded her mouth. Yet here, when Maura thought herself unheard, she spoke her true thoughts.
Rude, Anne thought. Red hair had naught to do with bad behaviour. She had decided to behave badly quite independently of her hair colour. As if in agreement, an orangey-red lock slipped out of her coif and into her mouth, and she shoved it back inside the cloth in annoyance, waiting for the woman’s muttering to fade into silence as she finally gave up and headed back into the castle.
“Saints’ eyeballs,” Anne muttered at Maura’s retreating figure. “One hour to think, ’twas all I wanted. You’d think I tried to run off with the gypsies, for all the fuss you made.”
Sir Robert had given her the news of her new betrothal just one hour past, and she’d tried to take it well, she truly had. But then she’d had the sudden urge to be violently ill. She’d told Maura and the assembled others that she needed a moment of privacy, but when she’d arrived at the garderobe she’d found what she really wanted was some peace and quiet. True, these woods that bordered the castle might be filled with ghosts, fair folk and even a few bandits, but today she’d risk the bandits.
By the Rood, all she needed was one single, solitary hour of peace…
Mountbatten Manor, Iversley, Angland, 1818 AD
“Star’s a fine mount, Mr Seymour,” the stable boy said. “Steady, fast. But she gets spooked by squirrels.”
George raised an eyebrow. “Squirrels in particular, or any small, furry creature?”
“Only squirrels, sir. She’ll be fine with anythin’ else, but if you see a squirrel, ‘old onto your seat.” He looked concerned. “I kin’ change the saddle if you don’t mind waitin’, it’s just the only other mount available is ten years old and we usually use ‘er for teaching children.”
So basically George had the choice between an ancient and incredibly slow horse, or one that was likely to try to throw him if they came across a squirrel suddenly. Not a rabbit, not a cat, just a squirrel. “I’ll risk the squirrel,” he said firmly. “I expect to be back within a couple of hours.”
As promised, Star was a fine mount. Lively and obedient, and with no squirrels in sight, George rode her over the fields that bordered his neighbour’s manor, heading for the woods. These were large grounds, and they also bordered George’s own family estate.
Well, not his, his older brother’s. As the second son of the late Viscount Morley, George was in line to inherit precisely nothing, not even a title – he was only an Honourable Mister. He was, however, free to go into the army, the navy, or possibly even the church…just not the occupation he’d chosen for himself. Before the Proserpine sank and took his savings and his self-respect along with it, that was. There was a reason that he was here at a neighbour’s estate, borrowing a horse, rather than at his own home with his own mount.
It was a long, depressing story ending in the events of just a few months before, and one he didn’t want to think about now.
“And I won’t even think about Clarissa,” he said aloud, but then realised that he was thinking of her right at that moment. By Jupiter, it had been over two years, he should have forgotten about it by now. She was off happily married to her solicitor in Cairnwall, and he didn’t care about her. Truly.
Suddenly feeling very black again, George dug in his heels and set Star into a gallop past the ruins of the old castle that had sat between the two estates for a hundred and fifty years. He would see exactly how lively the horse was – barring any squirrels, of course.
The road between Little Brimley and Whiteside, Leister County, Angland, 2012 AD
“Overseas adventure my ass,” Ash muttered, pulling her well-used Cortina off to the side of the rutted country road. The sign by the small car park read, scenic walk: 30 minutes return. “I could have stayed at home for all the adventure I’ve had.”
Home was the Southern Isles aka the Colonies; which like Angland were small, green and rainy, and where nineteen year old Ash O’Reilly had worked in administration. She’d set off for the other side of the world to have a grand adventure (since everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing), but so far, it seemed to be more of the same. Everyone just had a different accent.
To be fair, it might have been some of the choices she’d made coming over. She didn’t like busy cities or high rents, so instead of moving to Lunden as most would, she’d gone for the more unusual option of renting a cottage in the small town of Whiteside, Leister County. She’d found a basic admin/secretary job in nearby Little Brimley, which paid just enough for her to rent her tiny two bedroom cottage. The landlord was a friend of her mother’s who’d moved over twenty years ago, and they gave her a great price. Still, it wasn’t enough to save for those European trips she’d imagined.
Generic, low paying job, tiny house, no solid friendships in the three months she’d been here…and now the highlight of her week; a quick walk around the ‘forest’ off this country road.
Her mother was right, Ash realised in dismay. It wasn’t what she’d expected. And when she’d imagined the amazing things that adulthood would bring – this wasn’t one of them. As of this moment, the most exciting thing she had to look forward to was last night’s reheated lasagne.
“I need to be more spontaneous,” she told herself. “Mix it up a little.” Maybe she could think about getting a flatmate. She could afford the rent – just – but there was a spare room, and she could probably do with the company.
But she was still going for that walk. Although the air held the chill of early spring, this was the first day of sunshine in a week, and she wouldn’t waste it. Locking her car, she set her warm woollen cap over her messy dark hair, zipped up her plain jacket, and set off.
The sign had promised a scenic thirty minute return walk, but two hours later, Ash was lost. Somehow the dirt path had disappeared without her even noticing – she’d stumbled over her own feet, then when she’d picked herself up she’d been lightheaded and didn’t recognize a thing. She had tried retracing her steps, then retracing the retrace when that didn’t work; and it didn’t make sense, because the area wasn’t even very big…
Ha, she could write a book when she got home, and call it ‘How to get lost in a mile of forest; a guide’. That’d be a real money spinner, but she’d have to actually get home first. To add insult to injury, the walk hadn’t even been that scenic. Angland was flat and boring compared to home, and Leister County no exception. Green grass, brown mud…trees, and more trees.
Ash paused, looking around her with a frown. She still felt a little lightheaded from her earlier stumble, and it was long enough past her dinner that she felt very cranky, but the surrounding trees didn’t look at all familiar. They were more jungle-ish than the forest she was used to. And now she was walking up a hill – that certainly hadn’t been there before.
Oh, Deias. She was so lost.
After checking a large rock for bugs, Ash sat on it with her head in her hands. A small bird watched her from a nearby tree. She hadn’t seen one like that before around here; it seemed far too bright for this part of the country with its pine green feathers, crested head and red chest. A festively themed bird, she thought, although it was the wrong time of year for it. The newly-named festive bird cocked its head to the side and stared at her with what she imagined was a smirk.
Ash glared at the bird, but it just kept staring with those beady black eyes as though there was something interesting to see. She waved a hand at it, but it didn’t move, clearly aware of who had the upper hand. Hint: not her. She sighed; her mood must be foul if it felt like even the animals were against her today. “Don’t you know staring is rude?”
“My apologies,” the bird replied in a distinctly Anglish voice. “I thought perhaps you could direct me to Iversley?”
Ash jumped in surprise, almost falling off her rock. Behind her stood a boy in his late teens, to whom the voice had presumably belonged. About her age or a little older, he was fair-haired, slightly rumpled, and dressed like an extra for a Jean Austen film.
He smiled at her ruefully. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was thrown off my horse, and the blasted beast bolted. Squirrels, you know.”
“The horse,” the boy explained. “She’s easily started by squirrels. But never mind that – I’ve lost my bearings, and the day is short. Would you be so good as to tell me in which direction I might find Iversley?”
He looked sane enough – more so considering he’d actually asked her for directions – but then so did plenty of serial killers. Ash stood, carefully taking a step back. “I don’t know where that is, sorry. Is it a street name?”
He frowned. “No, it’s the village near here, with the manor of the same name. It should be very close. I hadn’t ridden for more than twenty minutes when I was thrown.”
Deias, his voice was as posh as one of those films too, Ash thought. And what did he mean by manor? Was he playing a game? “There’s no manor or village around here that I know of. The nearest town is Whiteside, and that’s a fifteen minute drive north.” She paused, debating how much to say, then added, “Perhaps you can help me, though. I came from the main road for a walk, but I’ve wandered off the path myself. Do you know which way that is? Or even where the road is? Then I can walk back to my car.”
There was a long pause where the boy looked confused and irritated – perhaps those heavy eyebrows added to the impression of grouchiness – and then he said again, very slowly and clearly as if she was stupid; “Iversley. It’s the village nearest here, just ten miles east of Markfield. Do you know where it is?”
“No…I…don’t,” Ash replied just as slowly. “Do…you…know…where…the…main…road…is? Or any road at all! I’ll get a taxi.”
He looked as disgruntled as she felt. “Ber’lody foreigners. Not making any sense at all.”
“At least I’m not dressed like an escapee from a period drama,” she snapped. “What are you, an actor?”
Mr Posh’s jaw dropped, making an excellent impression of a stunned mullet. “You’re a bold lad, to speak to your betters so,” he snapped back. “What’s your name?”
Lad? Betters? “None of your business,” Ash retorted, getting to her feet and backing away slowly. She carefully reached into the pocket of her bulky autumn jacket, feeling for her miniature can of pepper spray – just in case. “Now if you’ll excuse me, Mr Darcy, I’m going back to my car.” Wherever that might be.
But he stepped closer, now looking furious. “My name is not Darcy, and I do not excuse you. Whatever your game is-” And then he made the mistake of grabbing her arm.
Ash shot him full in the face with the pepper spray. He screamed, bent double and held his hands to his burning eyes. She didn’t wait to see how well it worked. She ran.